The practice of worshipping religious scriptures led to the emergence of paintings in manuscripts. The word manuscript is derived from two Latin words manu and scripture which means 'band written'. The art of painting in manuscripts developed in the Majuli in response to the religious movement of Neo Vaishnavism under Shri Shankaradeva. The art of painting manuscripts was patronised by King Shiv Singha (1714 A.D.) in the royal court. The theme of all the manuscripts is the life and the events related to the life of lord Krishna. He is either the centre of the painting or is conceptually related to the content of manuscripts. Illustrations together with written literature helped in comprehending the text easily and make the text interesting. The illustrations are rich in color and detailed in expression.Paintings were done in the Sattra especially on the ceiling and walls of the namghar. There are references of paintings done on the walls, ceiling, beams and posts in the biographies and specimens of this type are still found in the Sattras.
There are three styles of manuscript writing which are popular in this region :-
This art of paintings and manuscript writing was patronized by the Ahoms and also by the Sattras. The Ahoms mostly patronized the translation and original works of secular nature, while the Sattras prepared the Assamese rendering of the Bhagwat Purana, the epics and other Puranas bearing religious significance and importance in the context of Neo Vaishnavism. The earliest illustrated manuscript of Assam is the Adya Dasama of the Bhagwat Purana rendered into Assamese by Shri Shankaradeva, Chitra Bhagwat (Manuscript with painting).
Together they prepare the surface of manuscripts, colors and write texts in different styles. Historically, the Ahom kings used to patronize and support their own copyists under the supervision of a royal officer called likhakar barua meaning superintendent of scribes. The royal court also attached a set of compartments called gandhiya bharal for the preservation of royal manuscripts records and letters of the palace. The various styles of manuscript writing were developing different artistic schools with different artists expressing their artistic penmanship. However, though there is influence of devangari, their script shows that they exhibit the style and structure of the modern Assamese script. In Bamunia script the letters show the similarity with Kaithali and Gargaon style. Example of this style of scriptwriting is to be found in Subodhini Tika of Bhagavata Gita by Sridhar swami or Bhakti Ratnavali by Mahadeva. The origin of the Assamese script developed from the Brahmi script. The script was associated with old Sanskrit language. The three stages of development of Assamese script are:
Manuscript on sanchipat (sanchi bark)
The writing of scripts on the bark of sanchi or tula pat had some specific rules -The writings were generally done from the reverse side of the leaf. A margin on all four sides was left on both sides of each sheet and on the left side of each leaf numbers were given as identification. Hence on each and every paper there was a small central whole with some empty portions called salabindha (Nabhi).
Part of the word or sometimes part of the even letter or compound letters are found written separately in two lines. In the manuscript there was no use of coma (,), semi-colon (;), note of interrogation (?), note of exclamation (!) or other marks as in its modem form. They would only use stop marks indicated by single line (I) or double lines (II) and also by colon (:) marks. Stress was practically on pronunciation and often the sense or meaning of the writing was determined from the manner of pronunciation. In case of a mistake they did not remove it from the paper.
The prime materials used for manuscripts are:
Preparation of base: The tree of about 15 or 16 years' growth and 30 to 50 inches in girth measuring about 4 feet from the ground is selected. From this the bark is removed in strips which are 6 to 18 feet long and 3 to 27 inches wide. The strips are rolled up separately with the inner or white part inside and are dried in the sun for several days. They are then rubbed by hand on a board or some other hard substance so as to facilitate the removal of the outer or scaly portion of the bark. After this they are exposed to the dew for one night. Next morning the outer layer of the bark (nikari) is carefully removed, and the bark proper is cut into pieces of a convenient size varying between 9 to 27 inches in length and 3 to 18 inches in breadth. These are put into cold water for about an hour and the alkali is extracted, after which the surface is scraped smooth with a knife. They are often dried in the sun for half an hour and when perfectly dry, are rubbed with a piece of burnt brick. A paste prepared from the matimah (local pulse, Phaseous raditus) is then rubbed in and the bark is died yellow by means of yellow arsenic. This is followed again by sun drying, after which the strips are rubbed till they are smooth. The process is now complete and strips are ready for use.
Preparation of ink:
The ink is prepared mainly from silikha plant. A few fruits of similar variety may also be used to prepare ink. Fruits are kept in an earthen bowl filled with water for few days. The bowl in turn is kept in a non porous basin for a few nights. After a few days, the water turns black and percolates through earthen bowl and gets collected in the non porous bowl. Iron Sulphate or blood of Kusiya (local variety of fish) may also be added to this ink.
The ink thus prepared is as deep as Chinese black. It is also water proof and does not fade even after long exposure. Traditionally only a dark reddish color or hengul haital was used in the manuscripts. Among the other colors used in Assamese miniatures are the hengaul (Vermillion red), haital (yellow arsenic yellow), kharimati or dhabal (for white) and golden color (either from gold of through mixing red, yellow with La chaloa). Fibers from the fruit of the coconut tree are used for making brushes.
Nearly 3000 manuscripts are preserved in the Sattras, village Naamghar and house-holders of the Majuli Island. Traditionally, a special storage area called gandhiya bharal was allocated for keeping the manuscripts. Presently, a dedicated space as storage area for manuscripts is located within the Sattras. Manuscripts are wrapped in white paper and with cloth to protect it from dust and insects. Manuscripts have been sorted on the basis on the content. Each set is labeled as per the subject of the manuscript. Brief inventory of the manuscripts exist in each Sattra and an enhanced data base is under process by the governmental organization IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts). In the Sattras of Majuli, 8 important drama (Nat) of Shankaradeva are preserved. The dramas such as Kali damana (Subjugation of the serpent Kali), Patni Prasada (favour to Wives), Keli Gopal (Sport with the milkmaids) Rukmini Harana (Abduction of Rukmini), Parijata Harana (The theft of the flower Parijat) and Rama-vijaya (The Conquest of Rama) are still performed.
The Hostividyavarnava in Auniati Sattra, the Anadi Patana in Purani Chamaguri Sattra, the Bhakti Ratnawali in Kamalabari Sattra, Chittra Bhagawata and four others in Dakhinpat Sattra, Chitrabhagawata in Bengenaati Sattra are still preserved. The Narasingha and Bah Jengani Sattra and also the Kathbapu Sattra also preserve these pictorial manuscripts. (refer inventory of manuscripts in annexure 5.) The art of manuscript writing is continuing in each Sattra of Majuli Island. It is one of the prime concerns and responsibilities of the Sattras to train and educate the younger generation of the Bhaktas. Proficient Bhaktas are trained under the supervision of the masters of the Sattra. Hence, the Sattras act as main centers for the promotion of traditional form of manuscript writing and painting in its original form.
MATERIAL RESOURCE BASE
Required material for manuscript writing is locally available. Plant species like Sanchi or aloe tree and Silikha are used for preparing base for writing, ink and color respectively. These species grow naturally on the island. The climate and soil condition in Majuli supports their growth. Within the Sattra complex, Sanchi trees are planted by the Bhaktas near the Hatis and the maintenance of these trees is also their responsibility. Silikha trees are also located along the many pathways on the island. Requirement of materials for manuscript writing at the Majuli Island is fulfilled at the local level.